The Best of Sundance 2018

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As the hordes of party people decamp from the Delta terminal at SLC Airport, Park City’s streets become quieter and Sundance seems headed for the proverbial end-with-a-whimper. Yet don’t be fooled. Now Sundance enters its final and, to certain eyes, most critical phase: the deal-making. After a subdued start, we finally experienced the first big bang: a $10 million dollar world deal from AGBO and Neon Films and for Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation—which, considering the boiling zeitgeist, might turn out to be a bargain.

Sometimes a film seems to mainline the maelstrom of cultural anxieties and offer audiences the orgiastic release the real world can’t: Assassination Nation is that film. When a mysterious hacker posts online the deepest digital secrets of a small town—salacious tweets, NSFW selfies and far too much more—it provokes a wave of violent panic. The ravening crowd soon finds perfect scapegoats in three social-media obsessed teenage girls and their transgender best friend. Needless to say, the unleashed male Id turns nightmarish fast, leading to a pulse-pounding climax that simultaneously evokes Kill Bill and the tragedies in Charlottesville.  Levinson’s film is social critique by way of bloodbath, which is not without its flaws; but still, Assassination Nation hits a nerve by showing how the troll-logic of the internet all too tragically bleeds into real-life and causes social decay. “Self-righteousness is [the movie’s] real villain,” Levinson offered up after the screening and, given how the audience lapped up his film, the time may be over-ripe for that message.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Still, amid the bold headlines about record deals, you can’t overlook subtler but no less urgent films that just won’t get that hype, specifically Sundance’s stellar documentaries. Two of the most arresting films from this year’s festival were of the non-fiction breed: Heather Lenz’s Kusama – Infinity; and Kimberly Reed’s Dark Money. Yayoi Kusama, whose mirrored infinity rooms have washed over Instagram like a tsunami, has finally gotten her due and art historian Lenz gives a clear and comprehensive view of just how long-in-coming Kusama’s fame is. Raised in the ruins of Post War Japan, the precocious artist corresponded with and earned Georgia O’Keefe’s professional respect, moved to New York where she worked alongside Stella, Warhol and Rauschenberg, and fully embraced the 60s protest ethos--but was never taken seriously simply for being an Asian Woman. It pushed Kusama into depression, and eventually a mental hospital, but her work endured and if like so many others recently you’ve lined up to snap a selfie in one of her Infinity Mirrored Rooms, you owe it to yourself to watch this edifying film.

Photo: Eric Phillips-Horst | Courtesy of Sundance Institute

But of the two, Dark Money is clearly the more urgent. It’s not hard to find a constitutional scholar who thinks Citizens United was one of the worst Supreme Court decisions of modern times. Since the court handed it down in 2010, elections have been swamped with anonymous, ideologically charged money; but because these processes often remain abstract to the layman, dark money doesn’t evoke the outrage it should. Reed’s film changes that by giving plentiful human faces to the issue--often decent, hard-working and bipartisan ones at that. Smartly honing in on Montana politics, Reed shows how the Court’s decision upended that state’s deeply cherished tradition of transparent politics. At the start of the 20th century, the mining magnates known as the Copper Kings quite literally owned Montana State politics, brazenly bribing judges and elected officials; once Montana freed itself of their grasp it passed the nation’s strictest campaign finance laws. Citizens United upended all this, and Reed’s doc presents the efforts of a Special Attorney General’s methodical investigation to uncover and prosecute the worst abuses of the new dark money era. With all the hallmarks of a great legal thriller, Reed puts flesh and bone to the arcane minutiae and forcefully argues that Dark Money represents the greatest modern threat to our democracy.  Essential and riveting, it’s timely—and a perfect example of the great documentaries Sundance supports.

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And before heading back to reality, it’s worth mentioning the other festival that happened in Park City: Slamdance. While Sundance has grown into a gargantuan phenomenon, Slamdance thrives in its shadow, offering up barebones indies with an excess of heart to compensate for any budgetary restrictions. It’s easily overlooked, but I managed to catch the My Name is Myeisha, Gus Krieger’s heartbreaking tone poem of a film adapted from Rickerby Hinds’ play Dreamscape. Chronicling the life of a black teenage girl who finds herself at the wrong end of an officer-involved shooting through fourth-wall smashing hip-hop set pieces, Myeisha is a beautiful piece of art, as if Langston Hughes’ classic poem Montage of a Dream Deferred had been melted down and turned into pure film. Who knows how or where Myeisha can make it to general audiences, but just maybe in our new streaming world, it can. But all told, Myeisha sent me away from Sundance (and Slamdance) with a warm hope for the future of film. The digital revolution has unleashed so many great indie films that Sundance, and even Slamdance, is bursting at the seams with ambitious art. Next time you stare at vapid studio offerings and complain about the death of films, go on to Netflix, YouTube, Vimeo or whatever new screening platform has arisen and see for yourself just how delightfully wrong you are.